DHS Enhances Optional Practical Training Program in STEM Fields

by Joseph McKeown

Last week the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published a final rule to strengthen and enhance the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program for international students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, allowing students from accredited schools the option to work in the US for up to three years after graduation. The final rule replaces the existing 2008 interim final rule, and amends the current regulations at 8 C.F.R. parts 214 and 274a, regarding OPT for F-1 nonimmigrant students who have completed a STEM degree. The rule, which received more than 50,000 comments, the most in DHS history, will officially go into effect Tuesday, May 10, 2016.

“The new rule for STEM OPT will allow international students with qualifying degrees to extend the time they participate in practical training, while at the same time strengthening oversight and adding new features to the program,” Lou Farrell, director of the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) said in the press release.

The final rule, part of Obama’s executive action proposals, increases the STEM OPT extension from the current seventeen months to twenty-four months, and also includes the following enhancements and protections:

  • Only students who earned a degree from a school accredited by a U.S. Department of Education-recognized accrediting agency and certified by SEVP may apply for a STEM OPT extension.
  • Participating students who receive an additional qualifying degree from an accredited college or university can apply for a second STEM OPT extension.
  • Participating students can use a previously-earned qualifying degree to apply for a STEM OPT extension. The prior degree must not have already formed the basis of a STEM OPT extension and must be from a school that is both accredited by a U.S. Department of Education-recognized accrediting agency and certified by SEVP at the time of the student’s STEM OPT application. The student’s most recent degree must also be from an accredited and SEVP-certified institution.
  • Employers participating in STEM OPT must incorporate a formal training program that includes concrete learning objectives with proper oversight.
  • Employers and students must report material changes in their training program.
  • To guard against adverse effects on U.S. workers, terms and conditions of a student’s training opportunity – such as duties, hours, and compensation – must be on par with U.S. workers in similar positions in the same geographic area of employment. Additionally, the student must not replace a full-time, part-time, temporary or permanent U.S. worker.
  • Students must work a minimum of 20 hours per week per employer to qualify.
  • Students are permitted a limited period of unemployment during the initial period of post-completion OPT and the STEM OPT extension.
  • All STEM OPT employers must participate in DHS’ E-Verify program.

As BuzzFeed points out, the new regulation is meant to attract high-demand tech and engineering talent to the US, and is beneficial for not only foreign students in STEM fields after graduation but also the American universities that recruit them. Since the vast majority of foreign students pay full tuition, without relying on institutional scholarships or even federal student loans, foreign students are important sources of revenue for many American colleges. The influx of foreign students in the US last year was at the highest growth rate in thirty-five years.

“This extension is absolutely going to help colleges in the competition for the limited pool of international students [that want] a top-flight education in an advanced industrial economy,” Bill Stock, the incoming president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), said in BuzzFeed.

“As a kid, you have this craze of going to the U.S. to study,” Sapan Patel, an Indian student who graduated in 2012 with a master’s degree from NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering, told BuzzFeed. “But the worry and stress of getting a job in the U.S., to have that hanging over your head, that scares you.” Because of the uncertain and difficult visa process, Patel said, “some of my friends might decide to go to Canada, where getting a work permit and becoming a citizen is much easier, or to Australia.”

Along with the rule’s official publication, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), which monitors international students and also certifies schools and programs, launched a STEM OPT Hub on DHS’ Study in the States. This hub includes resources for students, designated school officials, and employers.